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Cynthia Morton and Sun-Young Park Published in the Journal of Advertising

Cynthia Morton
Cynthia Morton

Associate Professor Cynthia Morton and doctoral student Sun-Young Park’s article on “The Role of Regulatory Focus, Social Distance, and Involvement in Anti-High-Risk Drinking Advertising: A Construal-Level Theory Perspective” was published in the Journal of Advertising.


The present study examines the effects of regulatory focus, social distance, and involvement interplay on responses to anti-high-risk advertising messages. Results indicate that when asked to make judgments for distant entities, individuals are more persuaded by a promotion-focused frame in terms of ad attitudes, and responsible drinking attitudes and intentions, whereas there are no differential framing effects on judgments associated with proximal entities. The findings suggest the moderating effects of social distance on regulatory focus consistent with construal-level theory. In addition, in examining boundary conditions the results reveal that the construal-level effects are dependent on individuals’ involvement levels.

High-risk drinking among college students is one of the most challenging problems on college campuses (Lederman 2010). Binge (high-risk) drinking, defined as drinking five or more drinks in one sitting within the past 30 days, has actually increased over time. Nowhere is this more ubiquitous than on college campuses; college students have a higher prevalence of occasions of high-risk drinking—37% versus 30% among their peers of the same age (Johnston et al. 2013). Johnston and colleagues’ (2013) study shows that 37% of college students are involved in high-risk drinking on most college campuses, while 81% engage in drinking behavior at some time during their college years on campus. The study also indicates that the high rate of high-risk drinking has a profound influence on learning, retention, and graduation and is linked to the use/abuse of other substances (e.g., cocaine) and to mortality and morbidity from alcohol-related accidents and deaths.

Recognizing that high-risk drinking is a serious problem among college students, many attempts have been made to reduce such behavior and encourage responsible drinking (e.g., Berkowitz 2001). Social norm intervention, which attempts to correct misperceptions about peer drinking norms, has been prevalent; yet several studies have demonstrated that it has questionable effectiveness (e.g., Polonec, Major, and Atwood 2006). In line with this, recent studies acknowledge the complex social nature of human interaction, emphasizing the development of advertising messages designed to target individuals’ specific orientations toward alcohol use (Lederman 2010). Indeed, both social contextual and individual factors in public health could moderate an advertising message’s effect on health outcomes.

Whether a student decides to drink depends on individual disposition and on a decision made by an individual situated in a social relationship. A critical factor influencing drinking behaviors may be self-regulatory goals, which refer to a person’s tendency to orient his or her behavior toward favorable or unfavorable outcomes (i.e., motivational orientations) (Latimer, Salovey, and Rothman 2007). The saliency of norms, or the degree of immediacy normative behaviors have in an individual’s environment, could influence reactions to advertising messages that either encourage or discourage drinking behavior (Yanovitzky, Stewart, and Lederman 2006). Further, an individual’s level of involvement when processing the information (i.e., motivational state) may be an important factor affecting his or her responses to the messages as well. Yet few studies have empirically examined the effects of dispositional criteria, such as self-regulatory strategies, the saliency of peer norms on the risk taking of individuals, or the level of involvement, on evaluations of anti-high-risk drinking ad messages.

Thus, the purpose of this study is to examine the correspondence between messages framed as regulatory orientations, social distance, and involvement. The current research examines whether the persuasive effect of the message’s regulatory focus differs as a function of social distance frames based on conceptual rationale drawn from construal-level theory. This research also seeks to investigate how the construal fit effect between regulatory focus and social distance is influenced when the individual’s involvement with framed messages varies. In doing so the exploration not only intends to shed light on the potential effects of the framed messages but also to contribute to construal-level theory by testing its boundary conditions and tapping into unanswered issues. The findings will provide important theoretical implications for future research on public health interventions and practical implications for advertisers’ strategic use of individually tailored messages, particularly in anti-high-risk drinking advertising.

Posted: August 20, 2015
Category: Research News
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